Dozens killed as Turkey prolongs Iraq incursion
Monday, 25 February 2008

Agence France-Presse . Ankara

Turkish troops cracked down on Kurdish rebels in neighbouring Iraq on the third day of a major ground offensive Saturday as Ankara said dozens of rebels and at least five soldiers had been killed.

While the military claimed the operation had sown panic amongst the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the separatist group raised the stakes by threatening retaliatory attacks in city centres inside Turkey.

The foreign minister, Ali Babacan, sought to soothe Iraqi protests and Western misgivings over what was the largest ground incursion into Iraq by Turkey for a number of years. 'A successful operation is under way,' Babacan said in Ankara. 'The only target... is the PKK terrorist organisation.

Turkey is the strongest supporter of Iraq's territorial integrity and political unity.' Turkey's forces bombed targets around Al-Amadiyah, an Iraqi Kurdish mountain town about 10 kilometres south of the border. 'The shelling started at around 6:00am (0300 GMT) and continued for two hours,' an Iraqi border guard said.

Intensive bombing and artillery fire also targeted rebels in the Qandil mountains, a major PKK stronghold to the east along the Iraqi-Iranian border, and many militants were killed, unnamed sources told the semi-official Anatolia news agency. There were intensive clashes on the ground in the Zap region, another prominent rebel hideout, and the Turkish army was sending reinforcements according to Firat news agency, considered to be a PKK mouthpiece.

In Cizre, a small border town on the Turkish side, soldiers patrolled hills along the frontier and dozens of armoured vehicles shuttled on the roads.

At least 24 PKK militants and five soldiers died in clashes since Thursday evening when an undisclosed number of Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq after eight hours of air and artillery strikes, the military said.

It estimated that at least 20 other rebels were killed by artillery and helicopter fire, but said the exact toll would not be known until troops reach the targeted area. PKK leaders, quoted by Firat, said Saturday that 22 soldiers and two rebels had been killed.

The Turkish military claimed the operation spread panic among the PKK, which is believed to have been caught by surprise by an offensive launched while snow was thick on the ground.

Turkish incursions into northern Iraq, which were frequent in the 1980s and 1990s, were usually launched during the spring thaw when PKK militants began to sneak into Turkey from their winter bases in the rugged mountains.

'The terrorists have suffered heavy losses,' the military said. 'According to intelligence, the (PKK) leaders are trying to flee the region, running southwards in panic.' The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Ankara and much of the international community, urged Turkey to halt the operation.

'If not, we will move the theatre of combat to the heart of Turkish cities,' PKK spokesman Ahmed Danis said. Ankara says an estimated 4,000 PKK rebels are holed up in northern Iraq and use the region as a springboard for attacks on Turkish territory as part of their campaign for self-rule in Kurdish-majority southeast Turkey.

More than two decades of conflict have claimed at least 37,000 lives. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gave assurances Friday that 'the target, purpose, size and parameters of this operation are limited.'

One Turkish soldier was killed Saturday by a landmine explosion blamed on the PKK in Bingol, a Turkish province far from the Iraqi border.

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